Words and Phrases Lost in Translation

Com­ing from the author’s con­fu­sion in relat­ing to her Ger­man-speak­ing Balkan part­ner, the ques­tion is asked: can phrases and words that we give great weight to in our nat­ive tongue truly be trans­lated across cul­tur­al and lan­guage bar­ri­ers.

Could it really mean the same thing for him to say “I love you” in Eng­lish if he spoke Ger­man? He said it did, of course it did. But I sensed that when he cursed in Eng­lish it was just a sound to him, because when I curse in a for­eign lan­guage it’s just a sound to me. Why should say­ing “I love you” be any dif­fer­ent? […]

I don’t speak Ger­man but I’ve said “ich liebe dich” plenty of times and it nev­er does feel like a con­tract the way say­ing “I love you” feels like a con­tract. […]

I once tried say­ing “volim te” — “I love you” in Serbo-Croa­tian — and he did­n’t respond. I asked if I’d said it right and he said I had. Then he repeated it quietly.

That’s the one, I thought: volim te. That’s the “I love you” that works for me, the one that is hon­est.

It’s a touch­ing art­icle, and presents a thought that is now at the fore­front of my mind giv­en my impend­ing move to a non-nat­ive Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­try.

Euphem­isms, polite­ness, sug­gest­ive­ness, sar­casm, irony and pass­ive-aggress­ive ges­tures — all risk being lost in trans­la­tion.

In my writ­ing class, I teach my stu­dents about sub­text. I tell them people alter their con­ver­sa­tions depend­ing on whom they wish to address. I tell them people rarely say what they mean, that we are con­stantly revis­ing our words, that the move­ment from thought to word is often trans­form­at­ive and strange.

Sub­text does not often trans­fer between lan­guages.

7 thoughts on “Words and Phrases Lost in Translation

  1. Paul

    Hmmm. I’m not so sure.

    Eng­lish is a Ger­man­ic lan­guage, so it is very likely that “ich liebe dich” is very close to “I love you” (if any­thing the Ger­man is actu­ally more sin­cere because it uses a more intim­ate ver­sion of ‘you’).

    The author points out that although she does­n’t speak any Ger­man, she’s decided that based on her part­ner­’s reac­tion, the Ger­man form is less sin­cere? Okaay.

    If her art­icle was about Rus­si­an, East Asi­an or even some Scand­inavi­an lan­guages then I could see what she means – they are so far removed from Eng­lish that many ideas read­ily expressed (with sub­texts) in those lan­guages are untrans­lat­able in Eng­lish.

    Here’s one from the only East Asi­an lan­guage I know – Japan­ese:

    Bimbo Yus­uri’ (writ­ten 貧乏揺すり) is the name giv­en to when someone (almost invol­un­tar­ily) keeps shak­ing their leg under a desk. It is not con­sidered a par­tic­u­larly endear­ing trait, and people in Japan will tell you off for doing it.

    Here in the UK, (almost) no-one is bothered by it enough to men­tion it.

  2. Simon Bostock

    Japan­ese has no way of say­ing, “I love you.” You can trans­late it pretty eas­ily – aishteru – but people don’t say it. It sounds ‘ridicu­lous’ is how my wife puts it, like a ‘Hol­ly­wood movie’.

    When I lived in Czechoslov­akia, I had a girl­friend who once hit me because she was so frus­trated that she could­n’t make a dimin­ut­ive out of my (nick)name.

    About Eng­lish being a Ger­man­ic lan­guage and “ich liebe dich” there­fore being close to “I love you.” – maybe. But is Ger­man closer to Eng­lish than Eng­lish is to, say, Eng­lish thirty years ago? I doubt it, and I’m not at all sure that any­body said, “I love you” then with any reg­u­lar­ity.

    I sat in a cinema in Ger­many once where the audi­ence burst into laughter because one of the act­ors said, “I love you.”

    Advice for you, Lloyd. I’ve lived in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and the one thing I’ve always struggled to work out how to say is, “Not bothered.” Oth­er lan­guages just don’t seem to say it. If some­body here asks you if you want ‘tea or cof­fee’ and you say you’re not bothered, that’s fine. Say it in some coun­tries and you’ll spend the rest of the after­noon apo­lo­gising. In my exper­i­ence, any­way.

  3. Paul

    “Japan­ese has no way of say­ing ‘I love you’ ”

    Whaa … ? I think you’ll find “Aishiteru” is the way of say­ing “I love you” and there’s a vast num­ber of Japan­ese pop songs to prove it!

    In addi­tion, Japan­ese has more ways of say­ing “not bothered” than Eng­lish!!

    “Betsu ni”
    “O suki ni (shite)”
    “Doc­chi mo”

    Hus­bands don’t reg­u­larly say it to their wives because it sounds soppy, just like it does in Eng­lish. And Ger­man. That’s why no-one says it – not because of any inher­ent loss in trans­la­tion.

  4. Simon Bostock

    Paul, you’ll have to have a word with my wife. She says it’s not the same and that there’s no way of express­ing the idea of “I love you.” I’ve just asked again and ‘aishteru’ is okay in pop songs, but not in real life.

    In fact, if I under­stand cor­rectly, it’s because it’s okay in pop songs that you can­’t say it ‘in real life’. Or she can­’t, at any rate.

    You’re right about the ‘not bothered’ thing in Japan­ese, though. I nev­er think about phrases like that as being ‘not bothered’ but more like ‘whatever pleases you (because we are not worthy)’.

    There’s me over­lay­ing my idea of what Japan­ese cul­ture is like. (I ran the four phrases past my wife – “like ‘not bothered’ or ‘either’ or ‘whatever you like’ but more polite”.)

  5. Andrew Smith

    Comedi­an Stew­art Lee made some inter­est­ing com­ments about how cer­tain jokes will not work in Ger­man. Jokes like..
    “I was sit­ting there, mind­ing my own busi­ness, naked, smeared with salad dress­ing and low­ing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.”
    .. won’t work in Ger­man as you have to reveal you’re on a bus at the begin­ning of the sen­tence.
    He goes on to say: “Eng­lish lan­guage allows us to ima­gine that we are an inher­ently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocab­u­lary and a gram­mar that allow for end­lessly amus­ing con­fu­sions of mean­ings.”

  6. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    I think there’s an inher­ent prob­lem with try­ing to com­pare any lan­guage isol­ate with anoth­er of firm gene­a­logy or indeed a lan­guage from one fam­ily to anoth­er.

    When lan­guages evolve so dif­fer­ently and we have a word or phrase that is so embed­ded in two or more dis­tinct cul­tures (I love you, Not bothered) we will always come across ser­i­ous dif­fi­culties in trans­la­tion. While they may have, in recent times, con­verged towards a com­mon mean­ing, their roots are def­in­itely not shared and con­fu­sion will no doubt res­ult: a con­fu­sion that’s dif­fi­cult to fully com­pre­hend.

    Of course, Ger­man and Eng­lish are very closely related but Serbo-Croa­tian is vastly dif­fer­ent: it’s not a Ger­man­ic lan­guage at all but a Balto-Slavic lan­guage. This is where I image the authors con­cerns lie: not in the dif­fer­ences between Ger­man and Eng­lish, but in the dif­fer­ences between Serbo-Croa­tian and English/German.

  7. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    Lee’s art­icle on how dif­fer­ent lan­guage con­struc­tions lead to dif­fer­ent meth­ods of joke-writ­ing is inter­est­ing. I came across this just over a year ago where I also noted anoth­er art­icle you may be inter­ested in: Simon Pegg on how cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences lead to dif­fer­ent meth­ods of joke-writ­ing.

    This reminds me of a Mark Twain quip in his essay The Awful Ger­man Lan­guage:

    Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or sys­tem in dis­tri­bu­tion; so the gender of each must be learned sep­ar­ately and by heart. There is no oth­er way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memor­andum-book. In Ger­man, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what over­wrought rev­er­ence that shows for the turnip, and what cal­lous dis­respect for the girl.

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